‘Equality scares those who see themselves having the most to lose’

Written by Paromita Chakrabarti

Published: June 7, 2020 10:28:20 am

Readers who have followed her steady rise have travelled on the wings of her words to distant islands, set apart from the mainland by their own ecosystems. (Source: Tom De Freston)What prompts an award-winning children’s writer to turn her gaze towards fiction for adults? For British novelist, poet and playwright Kiran Millwood Hargrave, it was the Steilneset Memorial, which drew her attention to a Scandinavian calamity and its terrible aftermath — the Vardø storm of 1617 in northern Norway, that nearly decimated the island’s male population, and the witch trials that followed in 1621, one of the biggest in Scandinavian history. “I discovered the story of the 1617 storm and the 1621 witch trials through a piece of art — an installation by (French-American) artist Louise Bourgeois. She created an extraordinary cage of smoked glass, in which sits a metal chair, on fire, and surrounded by bronze mirrors. It says a lot about culpability, voyeurism, horror, and beauty,” says Hargrave, 30. The memorial, built by Bourgeois and Swiss architect Peter Zumthor, is a tribute to the victims of the witch trials.
The Mercies (Picador, Rs 699), Hargrave’s first novel for adults, which saw a 13-way bid for publishing rights, opens into a world where the storm brings devastation and resilience, grief and jealousy, and a growing religious hysteria, that will, inevitably, leave desolation in its wake. In 1618, the Danish king Christian IV, introduced anti-sorcery-and-witchcraft laws, inspired by his Scottish counterpart, King James VI. Aimed primarily at the indigenous Sami population and their pagan rituals, these laws soon encompassed anyone considered deviant. In particular, it was used against women who were unconventional — women like those in Vardø, who slipped into the shoes of their dead menfolk, learning to fish and graze reindeer, to butcher meat and to survive. Over 50 witch trials were held in the region under the supervision of its governor, John Cunningham, and many of the Vardø women were burnt at the stake.
The characters Hargrave constructs — Maren, who loses her father, brother and fiancé, but who must renegotiate the rules of survival on the island; Ursa, the teenager from Bergen, in an unequal marriage with the fanatical new governor of Vardø; Karen, the outspoken woman with a disregard for taboos, and a host of others — are reminiscent of a long line of feminist heroines who have to face up to systemic, structural patriarchy. “I always react against the phrase ‘strong women’ because all women are strong. But it’s still the case that women struggle to be seen as empowered, be it physically, emotionally, financially…I think equality scares those who see themselves having the most to lose — people with power will do anything to keep it,” she says.
In many ways, The Mercies is an extension of Hargrave’s writings for children, marked by her surefooted sense of atmosphere and character. Hargrave, whose childhood was full of books and travel, says she has always aspired for fluidity in her writing. “They (writing for adults and for children) are different in theme and tone, but my style is consistent throughout. I’ve always admired writers like Philip Pullman, Eva Ibbotson, and Margaret Atwood, who skip through genres and form and trust their readers to follow them,” she says.
Readers who have followed her steady rise have travelled on the wings of her words to distant islands, set apart from the mainland by their own ecosystems. Her debut novel — The Girl of Ink and Stars (2016) — that won her the Waterstones Children’s Book Prize 2017 and the British Book Award’s Children’s Book of the Year — is the story of another island dweller, Isabella, a cartographer’s daughter, who embarks on a mission to find her missing best friend, disguised as a boy. In The Island at the End of Everything (2017), her second book for children, shortlisted for the 2017 Costa Book Awards, Hargrave turns to historical fiction and tells the story of Ami, who lives on Culion Island in the Philippines, once the world’s biggest leper colony. The arrival of a new government official means healthy children like Ami have to leave behind their ailing family members and move to an orphanage across the sea. In The Way Past Winter (2018), Mila and her sisters have to find a way to rescue their brother Oskar, who disappears the morning after mysterious strangers land up at their place asking for food and shelter for the night.
In each of these books, Hargrave offers a compelling view of the feminine experience that must overcome loss, discrimination and injustice to own the relationships and identities they forge. To this end, the island as a setting offers her a perfect microcosm of the world. “I’m always interested by nationhood, by what makes people feel they have ownership over a piece of land, and this is so strong on islands. It’s a dangerous thing, the suspicion of outsiders, the intolerance of incomers. That way prejudice and bigotry lie,” she says.
If her books for children are lit up by empathy and an independence of spirit, it is not because she talks down to her readers but because she refuses to airbrush out the darkness. Hargrave remembers being encouraged by her parents to ask questions and her half-Indian mother instilling in her the importance of believing in herself. “I valued authenticity as a child. As adults, we forget that children experience the world with as much conflict and complication as grown-ups do. Books can offer a safe space to negotiate these experiences. Children encounter bullies, loss, sadness — it’s important to speak openly about these so they have the tools to process them…I’d rather a child encountered them first in a book, so they feel better equipped if they come across them in life,” she says.
Her own resilience has been built on a happy, stable childhood and her pushback against depression that came on the heels of a traumatic incident when she was 19. “It is an illness, and has led to cancelling events, pushing deadlines. But I’m tentatively hopeful that those days are behind me. I’ve worked hard in therapy, and found the right medication to manage my condition. It’s something I can live with. Perhaps, it’s made me more empathetic, but I’m very anti the idea of promoting mental health as a romantic thing, something writers and artists, in particular, nobly wrestle with. The truth is it’s debilitating, exhausting, ugly,” she says.
In Oxford, where she lives with her artist husband and her cat, she has spent the lockdown in industry, editing two shorter works for children and writing her next novel for adults — “another work of historical fiction, based around an event of mass hysteria, set in the hottest summer Europe ever knew,” she says.
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